There’s Knowledge and Then There’s Wisdom…

A friend recently shared one of Andrew Sullivan’s “Quotes of the Day”–this one by Isaiah Berlin, in “A Message to the 21st Century.”

 Justice has always been a human ideal, but it is not fully compatible with mercy. Creative imagination and spontaneity, splendid in themselves, cannot be fully reconciled with the need for planning, organization, careful and responsible calculation. Knowledge, the pursuit of truth—the noblest of aims—cannot be fully reconciled with the happiness or the freedom that men desire, for even if I know that I have some incurable disease this will not make me happier or freer. I must always choose: between peace and excitement, or knowledge and blissful ignorance. And so on.

So what is to be done to restrain the champions, sometimes very fanatical, of one or other of these values, each of whom tends to trample upon the rest, as the great tyrants of the twentieth century have trampled on the life, liberty, and human rights of millions because their eyes were fixed upon some ultimate golden future?

I am afraid I have no dramatic answer to offer: only that if these ultimate human values by which we live are to be pursued, then compromises, trade-offs, arrangements have to be made if the worst is not to happen…..

So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”

  As I wrote my friend, this is a far more eloquent expression of my conviction that modernity requires an ability to live with ambiguity—an ability to weigh and measure, to moderate, to recognize (as Learned Hand once wrote) that the spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not too sure that it is right.
Civility and intellectual modesty–those hallmarks of maturity– will take the human race much farther than shrill certainty and rigid ideology.  As Emerson famously noted, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.


  1. “But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory.”

    I believe the lack of understanding this profound statement is how and why President Obama lost much of the original support which resulted in getting him elected twice. Supporters expected – and demanded – all of his campaign promises be kept…immediately if not sooner. I am not satisfied with all of his decisions, actions or non-actions but my support continues 100% because I have tried to view the overall picture of his presidency and the obstacles he faces. The same should be expected of any great leader; this is wisdom and wisdom is reality. Those who expect – and demand – perfection will always be disappointed in all aspects of life.

  2. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”

    Also, I’ll thank Dungeons & Dragons for informing me of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom — they had an intelligence stat and a wisdom stat which led me to contemplate the difference between the two. Meanwhile, the relationship between justice and mercy was discussed in “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar” — which led the game player to master the 8 virtues. Each virtue was some combination of 3 overarching principles – Truth, Courage, and Love. Justice was Truth & Love. (Whereas, for example, Sacrifice was Love & Courage).

    I guess what I’m saying is that our electorate needs to play more nerdy games.

  3. Democracy is the acceptance that we, the people, are not only capable of self governance but are the best alternative for it. Why? Because my strengths and shortcomings are balanced by yours.

    Our ego demands the perspective that I am what our limited senses perceive me to be. An entity. It’s just as accurate to perceive me as a massive colony of cells, most of which don’t even carry my DNA as they’re my microbiome of hangers on who help, for a fee of course, me to digest my food and ward off still other micro organisms whose fee is unaffordable as it weakens our colony of co dependent travelers.

    It’s also just as accurate to perceive me as only one of us, an insignificant cog in the vast machinery of humanity. A molecule of water in the flowing stream of like players who create the endless march of progress and destiny.

    Or perhaps my stewardship is of life as all of it is part of life’s (lone?) outpost in the Universe.

    When I pry my intellect from my ego I see clearly that not only am I incapable of choosing among those perspectives but don’t want to. There is no need to. In fact, even above those perspectives there is the additional one of time. Another flow that defines me as the connection between past and future.

    All of those perspectives are served by democracy. It is what’s best for the miniature world that forms me, the macro world riding our little planet through the endless universe, and our moment in an equally unlimited flow of time.

    But, like life, our democracy is and will be constantly pressured to give in to forces favoring others with more limited perspectives. Just as the Ebola virus challenges us for dominant species.

    We owe it to all that we are to defend life for all of life, not just some of it. Democracy is the extension of evolution and natural life. It’s what works best expanding, and what is less adapted to right now receding.

    It’s what life is designed for.

  4. I would weigh in the side of mercy. That was the basic theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. As he told the graduates of Agnes Scott College, “If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on The Mount, With its message of mercy an pity, I wouldn’t want to be human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.”In his “Palm Sunday” sermon at St. Clements Episcopal Church in New York City he said “I am enchanted by the sermon on the Mount. Being merciful it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another that good by and by – and then we will have two good ideas.” He wondered why the people who urge us to engrave The Ten Commandments on public buildings, never suggest that we engrave The Sermon on The Mount anywhere.
    – Dan Wakefield.

  5. Knowledge is knowing that a tomato as a fruit, Wisdom is knowing not to put tomatoes in fruit salad.

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